Hearthstone is a dangerous game. Dangerous, as in “highly addictive." I started playing it on Saturday, and was up until the early hours of Sunday morning playing it. And when I woke up earlier today, I started playing again because… well… I just needed to make sure I was really familiar with it before writing this short preview. And if anyone thinks that's a flimsy excuse to justify extending my play time into work hours, I’m pleading the 5th.
If you haven’t seen it yet, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, to use its full name, is Blizzard’s up-and-coming money-printing machine, cleverly disguised as a collectible digital card game. While World of Warcraft still represents one of the fattest-uddered cash cows in the industry, even the most hardcore of hardcore fans are beginning to admit that its best times are behind it. Ie, someone like me, who still puts in a couple of hours a day playing it. I love the game, but like a dear old pet whose days are numbered, I’m enjoying it while it lasts.
Hearthstone takes its premise from that game and combines it with many fundamental Magic the Gathering card game mechanics to create something that simultaneously feels very familiar, but also very new. If you’ve played MTG, you’ll recognize the similarities instantly: but what Blizzard has done is made it faster, simpler and more immediate.
It’s a one vs one game in which players use pre-built decks of cards to summon creatures and use spells to beat each other down. That’s the basic description, in the same way that poker is a game of 52 cards, and chess is a board game with 32 pieces. Making the game more interesting is the fact that Hearthstone features classes from World of Warcraft, each with their own unique cards that only they can cast. These can be combined with regular cards everyone can use to create decks that play in similar style to their respective WoW class. This enables players to build around playstyles that range from aggressive and direct through defensive to tricksy and annoying. And if you’ve played Magic, all this will make total sense.
The game starts you off with a basic deck, and as you work your way through the rather nicely designed tutorial, you win more cards. Complete that, and you can continue to practice against AI opponents, which you can unlock by beating them. And so it goes, with you earning more cards and slowly unlocking all the classes until you have what feels like a really impressive collection of stuff to play with…
…until you realize that while the cards you’re winning are cool and all, the really kick-ass ones are only available from packs that are acquired either by playing the game a lot and building up enough in-game currency to buy them one at a time – or by opening your wallet and using real-life currency to buy as many as you can afford RIGHT NOW. And hark! Is that the sound of the cash machine being wheeled into the room? Indeed it is. Which is why Hearthstone gives you a taste for free – because if you’re in any way competitive and enjoy the game, it’s very difficult to resist the temptation to buy at least a few packs.
While many will wring their hands and curse Blizzard to the skies for robbing them blind, most will simply get on with buying and building decks and having a ball. Because like Magic the Gathering – which I believe is quite possibly the greatest game ever designed – Hearthstone is really, really, REALLY fun. If you’re a Warcraft player, you’ll nerd out over all the clever visual, aural and lore-based details, while those unfamiliar with Warcraft can simply enjoy a fast, immediate, highly competitive and enjoyable collectible card game. And if you’re a Magic player, you’ll immediately feel at home and say, “ah Blizzard, I see what you did there.”
Since this is not yet a review, I’ll hold off on waxing too lyrical – but holy hot damn. I’ve already spent my own money on it – and, yes, this is Beta – because when Hearthstone goes live, I’ll get my money back as “store credit” so I can repurchase whatever cards I've already bought.
Yeah. I’m already sold. Doh.